The Perfect Sonoma County Wine Country Itinerary for First Time Visitors

  • Travel
  • by DEVIN PARR
  • on MARCH 5, 2024
  • 1976
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Travel

The Perfect Sonoma County Wine Country Itinerary for First Time Visitors

By Devin Parr March 5, 2024

Whether you’re new to wine or a seasoned pro, few wine destinations offer more appeal than Sonoma County. With an inviting tapestry of valleys, mountains, and coastlines spanning over 60,000 acres of vineyards, each of the region’s 400 wineries offers a distinctive wine tasting experience just north of San Francisco and west of Napa Valley.

Like many other California wine regions, Sonoma County is divided into smaller sub-regions, known as American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). The iconic Russian River Valley, known for its cool-climate Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, contrasts with the warmer Alexander Valley, a haven for full-bodied yet structured Cabernet Sauvignons. The Sonoma Coast AVA, with vineyards cooled by ocean breezes, gifts wine lovers with ethereal Pinot Noirs, while the Moon Mountain District, rising more than 2,000 feet above Sonoma Valley, offers sun-drenched Zinfandels and robust red blends. And this is just a glimpse; there are 19 unique AVAs to explore here.

Sonoma County’s vibe is one of relaxed, totally welcoming sophistication. Visitors can easily fill their time exploring not just historic estates and boutique wineries, but an exciting culinary scene, buzzing city squares, lodging options that range from cozy to downright decadent, and adventure, outdoor, and wellness-driven activities for every type of traveler.

With so much to do and see, we’ve created a helpful three-day itinerary to guide your visit, whether you’re a first-time visitor or lifelong fan.

The Perfect Sonoma County Itinerary for First-Time Visitors

Hop Kiln Estate
Playing Bocce Ball with Friends. Photo Courtesy of Landmark Vineyards' Hop Kiln Estate located in Healdsburg, CA,

Day 1

Your first day of exploring Sonoma Wine Country is going to require sustenance. Set the standard for the rest of your journey by kicking things off with coffee and pastries at Quail & Condor in Healdsburg, where the croissants come with about a million layers of crispy, buttery heaven, and specialties like the decadent Kouign Amann will change your life. Trust us.

Next, it’s time to explore some of Sonoma’s classics for some wine tasting. Head to Landmark Vineyards’ Hop Kiln Estate to sample the exquisite Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that have come to define the Russian River Valley. There are a variety of educational tastings on offer, but for something a bit more casual, book the Bocce & Wine Experience, which is great for groups. California Cabernet more your thing? Visit the iconic, French Chateau-inspired Jordan Winery, or Aperture Cellars, with its stunning architecture and elegant wines, to see how Alexander Valley is putting Sonoma County on the map for top quality Cab. In fact, you’ve got time. Visit all three.

Aperture Cellars
Enjoying a glass of wine with friends. Photo Courtesy of Aperture Cellars in Healdsburg, CA
Aperture Cellars
Aperture Cellars tasting room with a view of the vineyards.

When it comes to dining, Healdsburg is packed with great options. For a menu that chef and owner Dustin Valette calls, “a modern ode to Healdsburg’s micro-seasonal ingredients,” not to mention a killer cocktail scene and some great people-watching to boot, snag a table at The Matheson. Looking for a top-notch vegan and vegetarian option? Little Saint will blow your mind with creative plant-based fare sure to impress even the meatiest of meat eaters.

The Matheson-Credit-Brianna-Danner
Photo Courtesy of The Matheson in Healdsburg, CA. Photographer: Brianna Tanner

By this point, you will either need a nap or an energy boost. Rather than load up on caffeine, opt for an adventure activity to get the adrenaline pumping. If you’re an animal lover, go on Safari at Safari West, where you can observe nearly 900 animals from more than 90 different species in a 400-acre wildlife preserve. More of an outdoor enthusiast? Book a self-guided kayak tour with Getaway Adventures and explore the Russian River, celebrated for being warm, clean, and perfect not only for kayaking but for swimming and beach going as well.

Safari West
Go on a wild ride! Photo Courtesy of Safari West

Return to downtown Healdsburg for dinner. It’s your first night in town, so why not splurge at the Three-Michelin-starred SingleThread, which spoils guests with a 10-course Japanese kaiseki-themed tasting menu in an intimate 55-seat restaurant. Looking for something more casual, while still delicious? Dine at Bravas Bar de Tapas, named one of the top 20 tapas restaurants in the U.S. by Travel + Leisure, for traditional Spanish and modern tapas, as well as local and Spanish wines, sangrias, and craft cocktails.

It’s been a busy day so if you’re dying to just crash, book a room at the boutique yet luxurious Healdsburg Inn on the Plaza for perfect walkability in a historic setting, or at Bella Luna Inn just off the Plaza, which features lush gardens, a deck patio, and a heated swimming pool. Feeling fancy? Reserve a room at the breathtaking Montage Healdsburg and luxuriate in a tranquil setting that fuses Sonoma’s natural beauty with world-class hotel service and amenities.

Montage Healdsburg
Photo Courtesy of Montage Healdsburg

Day 2

It’s going to be tough to top Day 1, so you will want to fuel up for the day ahead. Grab breakfast at the hotel, or a quick coffee at community favorite Black Oak Coffee Roasters before heading out to nearby Santa Rosa for a visit to the Charles M. Schulz Museum, which celebrates the life and work of the beloved creator of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the Peanuts gang through interactive exhibits and programming. If you’re in the mood to get mellow, stop at the nearby 365 Recreational Cannabis for some provisions while in town.

From Santa Rosa, it’s about 22 miles to the historic city of Sonoma, the heart of which is the vibrant Sonoma Plaza. On the way, plan to pop into the charming, family-owned VJB Cellars, where you can savor a taste of their heritage through carefully crafted Italian varietals and a slice from their Red Rooster Pizza Truck. Once you get to Sonoma, grab gifts for friends and family, or treat yourself to items from Sonoma Cheese Factory, Sonoma’s Best Mercantile, or Dirty Girl Donuts if you’re still feeling munchy.

Dirty Girl Donuts
Photo Courtesy of Dirty Girl Donuts

With bellies full and everyone on the gift list checked off, it’s time to get back to sipping. Check out Patz & Hall for some exceptional single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays as well as a stellar lineup of traditional method sparkling wines. Or, if you’re in the mood for something stronger, visit Hanson of Sonoma Distillery and sip (carefully!) through their portfolio of organic, grape-based, gluten-free straight and flavored vodkas.

Make your way further up the Sonoma Valley to the sleepy community of Glen Ellen, about a 15-minute drive from downtown Sonoma. Since it is a Wine Country adventure after all, indulge in another wine tasting or two at Benziger Winery, known for a broad selection of certified sustainable, organic, and biodynamic wines, or Imagery Winery, known for exciting red, white, rosé, and sparkling wines produced from lesser-known grape varieties.

Benziger Family Winery
Enjoying the wine tasting vibes in Sonoma. Photo Courtesy of Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen, CA.
Benziger Family Winery
The perfect pairing awaits. Photo Courtesy of Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen, CA.

While you could easily drive back to your hotel in Healdsburg, and dine at one of the aforementioned restaurants for dinner, you may want to switch things up and spend night two in Sonoma Valley. Check into the zen-like Gaige House, set alongside Calabazas Creek. If the hotel’s secluded setting and contemporary Asian aesthetic don’t instantly relax you, chill out by the outdoor swimming pool or in one of the hotel’s many peaceful gardens before heading out for dinner.

For dinner, the Glen Ellen Star is a must. The simple menu of expertly prepared wood-fired pizzas, roasted vegetables, and hearty mains served in a cozy setting alongside an extensive California wine list has made it a favorite among locals.

Day 3

It’s your final day in Sonoma, so let’s make the most of it. Enjoy a gourmet breakfast at Gaige House before checking out, then pay a visit to any of the beautiful wineries in the Sonoma Valley, such as the long standing St. Francis Winery, where the wine and food pairing experiences are not to be missed.

However, if time isn’t an issue and you don’t have anywhere you have to be quiet yet, consider spending day three exploring coastal Sonoma, located about 50 miles from Glen Ellen. On your way, jumpstart your day with a stop in the town of Occidental for an exhilarating round of ziplining with Sonoma Zipline Adventures.

Come back down from the adrenaline rush with a wine tasting and light lunch at Fort Ross & Winery in the coastal town of Jenner. Sample elegant coastal-climate Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinotage while you nosh on thoughtfully paired small bites like garlic and herb hush puppies and Yucatán-style chicken tacos in a tasting room overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

At this point, you’ll likely need to catch your flight from the Sonoma County Airport, which is roughly an hour away. Make a mental note to spend more time on the Sonoma Coast on your next visit, then enjoy the scenic drive back to Santa Rosa before heading home.

How to Get There

Reaching this wine- and food-lover’s dream is easier than you might think. Sonoma County Airport (STS), located in Santa Rosa, is the easiest gateway, with airlines providing connections to and from many major US cities; this itty-bitty regional airport is also a dream to fly in and out of. Alternatively, San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and Oakland International Airport (OAK) are both just a scenic 60-90 minute drive away, depending on that pesky Bay Area traffic. Sonoma County directly borders Napa Valley, so if a longer Northern California Wine Country exploration is planned, traveling between the two regions is easy.

Final Pro Tips:

  1. Be responsible!

    Designate a driver or take advantage of one of the many tour companies and specialized transportation options in Wine Country, such as Pure Luxury or California Wine Tours. Many leave from San Francisco and most Northern California cities, while others can be booked once you’re in town.

  2. Make a reservation!

    Many wineries either require or appreciate reservations so be sure to plan ahead. Because missing out on a tasting at your top choice winery would be a shame, and could throw off your whole day.

  3. Don’t forget to spit!

    All the pros do it. Seriously, though. All that wine can creep up on you if you’re not careful, so don’t feel the need to down every sip. If the spittoon isn’t your thing, simply ask for a fresh glass for each new wine, if one isn’t already provided, or make use of a dump bucket whenever possible. And remember: water, while boring, is your friend.

  4. Don’t be shy!

    Ask questions of both tasting room staff and locals. You never know – it may land you a secret barrel sample, a behind-the-scenes tour, or an insider tip on favorite in-town spots to visit.

Conclusion

Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a seasoned enthusiast, Sonoma County offers a rich and diverse wine experience, any time of year. This three-day itinerary filled with wine tastings, culinary delights, and outdoor adventures ensures a memorable journey through this incredible wine destination, and we have a feeling it’ll leave you wanting to return sooner than later.